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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
Jnauary 22, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Spear, Medieval Love, Belts, Washington

End of the Spear is a true independent film. It isn't being distributed by a major studio. Its promotions are appearing on relatively cheap cable TV stations, in commercial breaks on such shows as reruns of Full House.

From that, one might suppose that this is a kids' movie. Or a family movie.

And then you see that it's about natives of the Amazon jungle. Visions of Emerald Forest flashed through my mind. So it's a family movie about how we're destroying the jungle, right? And I've seen that before.

Oh so wrong.

1. This movie is not for little children. Our very mature eleven-year-old is at about the bottom age range for this film. Frightening things happen in this movie. Terrible things. Important things.

2. This movie is nothing like an ecoflick. Whether trees are cut down or not isn't even an interesting question. It's about human beings in their most elemental state. And I don't mean nearly-naked (though there's a lot of that); I mean in a state of constant violence and struggle for survival.

And then ... you might have heard something else. That this movie is about Christian missionaries to the Waorani tribesmen from the jungle of Ecuador. And from that you might guess that this is a "Christian movie." And it is -- in the sense that Godfather is a mafia movie. It's not designed to convert you to Christianity (nor, for that matter, to the mafia).

But the story only makes sense because it's happening to Christian missionaries. And just as, in Godfather, the leading character ends up being true to his code, so also in this movie the Christian characters are true to theirs. Yet you don't have to be a Christian or even care about religion to love this movie.

What matters is that these missionaries have heard (correctly) that the Waorani are tearing themselves apart, killing each other in endless vendettas, even as they're at war with a rival tribe. The missionaries are desperate to make contact in order to try to put a stop to the killings. Only they don't yet know more than a few words of the Waorani language. All they have is a plane, a few gifts to offer, good will, and hope.

Meanwhile, the Waorani life makes sense within its context. They have their own religion, their own ideology, and it is with a spear that men show their worthiness to live in the afterlife as men; if they are weak, they will be termites.

The movie starts when Mincayani and his sister, Dayumae, barely escape from a brutal raid by their enemies. They happen upon a group of white men on a road being cut through the jungle, and Dayumae goes to them, braving their guns (and they are quick on the trigger, since the local natives have a tendency to kill from ambush), in order to get out of the violent life of her tribe.

Skip a decade. Mincayani is now an adult, and the war leader of his people. Played powerfully by Louie Leonardo (whom we've seen on several Law & Orders), he has embraced the ethos of violence -- but not completely. He won't kill the children of his enemies -- a step toward civilization.

Now comes an airplane, bearing a group of missionaries who have been airdropping gifts. The first contact goes well by any rational standard; but the Waoranis whom they first met with lie about the encounter, for reasons of their own, and it ends in bloodshed.

Meanwhile, we have come to know these missionaries, and their families. Astonishingly, their wives and children don't go home. They continue the work, and not long afterward the women boldly go among the Waorani and make only one convert among the men (though many among the women, who are also sick of the violence).

The gospel they preach is simple enough: God has told us he doesn't want us to spear anybody, even if they have speared some of us.

And even though Mincayani resists the Christians' teaching, he tolerates the women's presence ... long enough.

This story is thick with violence -- that's the point of it. And even though we never actually see any bloody special effects, some people we care about die brutally. There were moments, fairly early on, when I saw the direction the film was going and pondered leaving the film.

Everything I dreaded did in fact happen. But it happened within a context of learning -- of a cultural intervention that saves people from their own self-destruction. There are those who would deplore such "destruction" of a "beautiful native culture" -- but when that culture is committing suicide, then it is hardly a crime to offer them ideas that will help them live a better way ... help them live at all.

Far more important than the violence is the eucatastrophe -- tragedy that leads to a good outcome. This story also has the great virtue of being true.

There are many wonderful performers in this show, though none that you are likely to recognize. Besides Louie Leonardo, we also get an unforgettable performance from Chad Allen as a missionary and then, later, as his grown-up son. Chase Ellison is the younger version of that son, Christina Souza as Dayumae, Jack Guzman as Kimo -- you will love these people and grieve with them.

With all the gimmicks movie people use to seem "brave" and win Oscars, here's a film that really is brave. It dares to depict Christians as people, and Christianity as a religion that has the power to transform lives. It dares to show people who have done terrible things learn a better way, and bridge the huge gulf of misunderstanding between cultures. It dares to leave us with hope growing from grief.

As a storyteller myself, I can tell you -- the things this film accomplishes are hard to bring off. There is more genuine artistry here than in any film I've heard being touted for Oscars -- and it is in the service of a story that will bring better things into your memory.

Don't take young children. Leave them with a sitter, and take your older children -- or go yourself, without them. Go alone. Bring a kleenex or two.

And when the movie is over, stay to watch the credits. They run footage from director (and co-writer) Jim Hanon's earlier documentary about the same story (Beyond the Gates of Splendor), so you can see some of the characters as they are in real life. I want to find and see that documentary -- the bits we saw were wonderfully entertaining in their own right -- a bit of humor to help lighten your heart.

But that's just a bonus. This film earns one of the most heartbreaking and satisfying climaxes I've seen. Don't miss this one.

*

Tristan & Isolde didn't look like much from the previews. It looked like all the other medieval love stories I've seen in the past ten years -- the "swords and skin" genre.

Ranging from the charming-but-silly (Knight's Tale) to the embarrassing (Kevin Costner's Robin Hood), from the merely adequate (King Arthur) to the appalling (First Knight), they were united in one thing: their contempt for history.

That doesn't bother most people, since, as products of the American educational system, they know less than nothing about history. But it bothers me, so why should I go see a movie that will annoy me on historical grounds while providing few compensations on the story side.

Another reason Tristan and Isolde didn't look all that interesting to me was that it was obviously a B-list picture. Not that there's really a B-list anymore -- now that double features are a thing of the past, they're all officially either A-list or indies.

But you know what a B film is now: Faces you sort of recognize, but no actors who have yet risen to the level of tabloid fodder.

Often these are vanity films -- a movie with some powerful people behind it, people the studios want to keep happy (in this case Ridley and Tony Scott, executive producers), so the film gets made even though nobody expects it to do all that well.

They use a director with a not-so-good track record (in this case Kevin Reynolds, who committed Waterworld and Robin Hood).

The actors who are cast are rarely in the million-bucks-a-film range, so you don't really recognize them in the promos.

The funny thing is that sometimes these films are surprisingly good. Many a B-list actor is extraordinarily talented. And if they are, they recognize these films as a chance to get seen, to maybe make the jump to the next level. So they act their little hearts out. And if the director is competent and the script doesn't suck too much, you can get a pretty good film.

And besides, my wife wanted to go.

So we attended the Friday-at-noon showing at the Carousel. The theater was surprisingly full for that time of day. And the audience was entirely women, except me.

That's OK. I like chick flicks. I like them way better than most movies supposedly made for guys. (Who are those guys, anyway?)

So here's the surprise: This movie isn't stupid. Sure, the history is messed-up, but not half so messed-up as usual. The plots and conspiracies of the bad guys are reasonably credible. So my intelligence wasn't offended ... much.

What matters, though, is that they got a lot of things absolutely right -- or right enough to convince me, anyway. The sets and costumes are amazingly authentic -- no anachronisms that I could see.

The houses and castles, the boats and weapons, were the kind they were building in the "dark ages" -- Britain and Ireland around 550 a.d. -- and there was the requisite amount of mud and dirt. (Not enough to be oppressive, as in the silly movie The Piano, which managed to make New Zealand, one of the most beautiful places on earth, look vile.)

The costumes are beautiful in detail, but they also look practical enough that someone might wear them in the real world. Most of the cloth is thick and coarse-woven; the colors look like what would have been available to dyers of that time and place.

And yet ... the designers and cinematographer still showed us moments of beauty. Without magicking it up with phony lighting effects ("Get a much brighter light on Galadriel!"), the arrival of the wedding barge was gorgeous. We could see how, in a less hygienic time, living closer to the earth, these people were able to create a lush, natural kind of beauty.

We also caught plenty of glimpses of the common people, and the numbers were right -- the armies were small.

Speaking of armies, nobody had plate armor -- thanks for that bit of authenticity! -- and there was no nonsense about knights on horseback. Even the contest for the beautiful maiden was conducted entirely afoot.

Which brings me to the story.

I never cared much for the story of Tristram or Tristand and Iseult or Isolde. Just another pair of adulterers as far as I could tell, and it's hard for me to work up much excitement about the woes of "true love" that "transcends vows."

But writer Dean Georgaris did an excellent job of shaping the story so that everything was understandable and believable. Yes, much of it depends on coincidence -- but this is a legend, folks, from a heroic age. And the people are contradictory and interesting, struggling between duty and feelings; and Tristan and Isolde are far from being the only people who make bad choices in this version of the story.

What Georgaris brings off is to show us real nobility. In a way, this movie is a better version of the story of King Arthur than any of the movies I've seen that actually had King Arthur in them. King Marke, the unfortunate husband, is shown to be a man with greatness in him; so, also, is Tristan. But even the bad guys are plausible, acting not out of evil, but for human motives that are common enough even today.

And the actors could not have done a better job. Tristan is played by James Franco -- whom we've seen as Harry Osborn, Peter Parker's rich friend in Spider-Man. Franco is blessed -- and cursed -- with pouty, sensitive lips and eyes in a chiseled-looking hyper-handsome face. He is, in other words, so good-looking that it's almost scary. Most of the guys who become huge stars are actually slightly goofy -- some good features, but some offbeat ones as well. But forgive Franco for his perfection: He can act.

So can the virtually unknown Sophia Myles as Isolde. She, fortunately, is not hyper-beautiful -- her looks are very pleasant, but most of all she has life and intelligence in her face. And Rufus Sewell, the bad guy in Knight's Tale, is marvelous as King Marke. His eyes seem to be full of menace, pain, and perception all at once; he seems to me to be the heir of the late Oliver Reed.

The rest of the cast is up to their level. David O'Hara as the manipulative Irish king is superb; he looks like the kind of ruler that other men would follow -- and fear. And I want to see more of Henry Cavill, who plays the complicated Melot.

And let's not forget director Kevin Reynolds. Yes, he botched Robin Hood and Waterworld, but he was not the rainmaker on those films -- Kevin Costner was. Reynolds's version of Count of Monte Cristo was very good, and Tristan & Isolde is even better.

It's probably not going to make a lot of money -- that B-movie vibe is going to keep a lot of people away. But it's going to be a favorite of many people, especially women, and it's going to last a long time on DVD. Don't wait. See it now on the big screen, where you can immerse yourself in this world.

*

I hate wearing a belt. Belts are stiff when they're new, and by the time they've softened enough to become comfortable, they look ratty.

Big fancy buckles only look manly if not a bit of belly hangs over them; otherwise they just look sad. Besides, big buckles are annoying when you have to strip off your belt at the airport security line. If you actually needed the belt, your pants fall down, or you go through the gate holding them up.

For years, when beach pants were in style, I simply didn't use belts at all. Elastic waists on huge baggy pants -- that is heaven for those with an especially intense relationship with gravity.

Then I went through a spate of weight loss, and the beach pants made way for cargo pants from Structure -- back when they were a store for grownups, before they became Express Men and offered clothes with European (i.e., Barbie) sizing.

Finally, as those elastic-waist Structure pants wore out and I couldn't buy more, I had to start buying pants with belts again. By then, though, I had got used to never carrying my wallet in my hip pocket. Cargo pants were going out of style, but I still needed them.

Fortunately, I found that Polo was making great cargo pants in sizes that grownup men could wear -- and the pants didn't have that stupid embroidered logo of a polo pony like all their shirts do.

All I needed was a belt that I could stand to wear.

I found a couple of nice reversible belts with minimal metal (for airports) -- but sure enough, with the stress I put on a belt, the buckle soon began to pull away from the leather.

Then, at Macy's in LA, I ran across a belt made by Fossil, of braided leather strips that flexed in every direction. Not only that, but the gaps in the web serve as notches, so that instead of a notch every inch, there's one every quarter-inch. That means that as you gain or lose weight, you can adjust the belt to fit you exactly.

It's comfortable from the moment you first put it on. It sails through airport security without having to be removed.

I've bought three of them, so that if they stop making them (as they always do, as soon as I become dependent) I'll still have a good belt for years to come. Check out www.fossil.com and www.polo.com.

*

General George Washington: A Military Life is a fascinating assessment of George Washington's military abilities. Author Edward Lengel does a superb job of making the campaigns and battles, the strategy and tactics crystal clear -- even if you're listening to the audiobook in a car.

The picture that emerges is of a general whose tactical ability was not extraordinary. While Washington labored under severe limitations, many of his defeats were chargeable in large measure to his own failure to anticipate the obvious moves his opponent would make, and, more importantly, his seeming unconcern for reconnaissance.

In battle after battle, supposedly on the American army's home ground, it was the British general who knew all the roads, all the fords over rivers, all the high ground, all the swamps and barriers, while Washington floundered about in constant surprise or flat-out ignorance of the ground his troops had to move through.

Admittedly, the British had the help of local Loyalists, who believed they were supporting the patriotic cause when they led the Redcoats around the flanks of Washington's hapless Continentals. But Washington's own ignorance of the same information was wilful -- he had plenty of opportunities to study the ground himself in advance of the battle.

Early in the war, the only reason Washington's army wasn't surrounded and destroyed by British General Howe was that Howe actually rather sympathized with the American cause (at least before the Declaration of Independence) and wanted to give us a chance to see the error of our ways without needless bloodshed.

Soon enough he changed his mind -- but had it not been for his passing up several chances to wipe out Washington's army, we British-Americans probably wouldn't be reading biographies of Washington today.

Still, there are few great generals who have not profited from the mistakes and missed opportunities of their enemies. (Indeed, Robert E. Lee's reputation depends almost entirely upon his successes against incompetent opponents, and Napoleon didn't face a lot of geniuses.)

And despite his flaws, Washington deserves full points for this: He not only created an army out of an untrained rabble, he also established the principle of the supremacy of the civilian authority even though the civilian authority hampered and neglected the army by turns.

He was the kind of obsessive micromanager and diplomat who could personally see to the details of supply that kept his army at least a day or two away from starvation.

He also was bold. Whenever he saw an opportunity to fight the enemy with any kind of decent odds, he'd take it. He has been criticized for risking his army too often -- but he was not just waging a military war, he was waging a political one. It was vital not only that he do the right thing militarily, but also that the American people see that their army was aggressively defending their land against the British.

And for the huge numbers of Loyalists -- the Tories who wanted the British to win and end this madness of revolution and independence -- Washington's battles were necessary to keep them from becoming too bold in their flouting of the state governments.

So if you want to maintain the illusion that Washington was a military genius, don't read this book. That idea will be in tatters.

What will remain is the truth: That for all his mistakes, Washington was truly the only general who could have accomplished the most important things: Creating an army, holding it together, and having it in position when it finally became possible (through a series of near-miracles) to win the war.

And yes, even at the end, Washington didn't want to take his army to Virginia, where the war finally ended. He was all for making an assault on New York, which the Brits had been fortifying for years. The French had to manipulate him into a position where he had little choice but to go south to eventual victory at Yorktown.

But history is replete with examples of generals who would have resisted the manipulation and refused to take a good idea -- because they hadn't thought of it. Washington was not one of those fools. When he thought an idea was good, he didn't care who thought of it.

I ended this book admiring and respecting Washington more than ever. Mostly, of course, because I know enough military history to put his mistakes in perspective. Everybody makes them -- there is no mistake-free war. And Washington had what he needed -- a truly noble character. He saw his duty, stuck to it, and made it work despite all obstacles, including the obstacles caused by his own ignorance and misjudgments.


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